Whether because of viral memes or impossible-sounding sales stats, it’s been hard to ignore the rising popularity of hard seltzer over the past 18 months. With so much coverage in the media, some imbibers may now want to explore the category for the first time. Others might have tried a few products and decided that hard seltzer wasn’t for them, but are seeing new brands flood the market and are looking to give the category another chance.

If you fall into either of these camps, you’ve arrived at the perfect place.

VinePair has watched the hard seltzer category grow and evolve at lightning speed since its (fairly) recent inception. For the last two years, we’ve released roundups highlighting dozens of our favorite offerings. And we’ve become the first publication to formally review hard seltzer. But even that isn’t enough to properly detail the range of options in the category. So we’ve created this ultimate buyer’s guide.

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Rather than just listing specific products, this article dissects the hard seltzer category into different styles, from market-leading brands to craft alternatives to brewers making seltzer-adjacent offerings. We also look at different production methods, include some brief tasting notes, and — yes — namecheck the brands that should be on your radar.

Put simply, this guide contains everything you need to know to start enjoying hard seltzer.

What Is Hard Seltzer?

This is a slightly tricky question to answer, because there is no concrete, legal definition. Generally speaking, all hard seltzers are sparkling, lightly flavored beverages that have a low alcohol content similar to beer. But there are a number of different ways producers can arrive at that profile.

The handful of brands that pioneered the early stages of the hard seltzer category make products the TTB defines as “flavored malt beverages.” These drinks gain their alcohol content by brewing malt or fermenting cane sugar. Natural flavorings are then added to this base, which is carbonated prior to canning.

Over time, new entrants to the category have altered and adapted this formula. Some hard seltzer brands now include different base alcohols, from distilled spirits to wine, while others brew their products from fresh fruits.

Nowadays, the only thing that truly unites all hard seltzers is the category’s nutritional values. All the brands listed in this guide stick to a formula of fewer than 150 calories; 5 percent ABV or below; and fewer than 10 grams of carbohydrates per 12-ounce serving. They also make this information clearly visible on individual packaging.

The Big Brands

Peruse the shelves (and coolers) of your local supermarket and you will encounter the four brands that enjoy the vast majority of the category’s market share: White Claw, Truly Hard Seltzer, Bud Light Seltzer, and the newly rebranded Bon V!V (previously SpikedSeltzer, then Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzer).

The first three brands are all but indistinguishable in a number of ways. The nutritional values of their drinks are identical, serving 5 percent ABV, 100 calories, and 2 grams of carbohydrates per 12-ounce pour. Each also offers a range of simple, fruit-flavored options that taste similar to non-alcoholic lemon, lime, grapefruit, black cherry, and mango seltzers.

Across the board, each brand’s citrus flavors (lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit) taste like carbon copies of each other. Not until you sample the tropical fruit and berry-flavored offerings do the subtle differences between each producer become apparent. At this point, deciding on a favorite is like finding a preference between Coca- Cola and Pepsi or Bud Light and Coors Light.

Bon V!V bucks the trend somewhat in a few fields. This brand checks in with lighter nutritional values — just 4.5 percent ABV, 90 calories, and 1 gram of carbohydrates per 12-ounce serving. Bon V!V also serves a more eclectic selection of flavors, with Pear Elderflower, Clementine Hibiscus, and Coconut Pineapple joining the standard fruit-flavored lineup.

The Craft Brands Leading the Space

There are also options for people who enjoy the subtle flavor profile of the market leaders, but prefer to spend their dollars on small-scale, independently owned brands. Start with breweries such as Minnesota’s Lift Bridge Brewing Co. and Colorado’s Oskar Blues Brewery. Both are more renowned for their beer production, but each has used its expertise to add notable additions to the hard seltzer category.

Lift Bridge’s St. Croix Berries notably scooped top spot in VinePair’s 2020 hard seltzer roundup, while the brewery’s Voyageurs Citrus flavor also made the list. What makes them so good? While each flavor includes natural flavorings in its recipe (like the major brands), they also have slightly more calories (120) and carbs (3.3 grams). This subtle difference offers fuller-bodied sips, and makes these beverages taste more concentrated, but still seltzer-like in their essence.

Wild Basin (Oskar Blues’ hard seltzer line) arrives with the same ABV and calorie count as the category leaders, but serves just 1 gram of carbohydrates. This lineup is distinguishable for its fun selection of fruity pairings, from Blueberry Mango to Lemon Agave Hibiscus to Melon Basil. Given these distinctions, Wild Basin could be seen as the craft alternative to Bon V!V, but the intense intense fruity character of this range also adds a perceived sweetness that most seltzers don’t show.

Other craft brands eschew the mainstream template by incorporating fresh ingredients in their recipe. Like upping the calorie and carb count, doing so also provides fuller flavors. Notable brands that use this technique include Narwater (Monday Night Brewing), H2Roads (Two Roads Brewing Company), Ficks Beverage Co., and Willie’s SuperBrew. All of their hard seltzers include 100 percent real fruit and fresh ingredients. Besides concentrated flavors, this process also adds attractive, lightly colored hues and vibrant aromas that jump out of the can.

2 Towns Ciderhouse goes one step further, brewing the base alcohol for its SeekOut Real Hard Seltzers from fruit, rather than cane sugar or malt. This lineup tastes like subtle but genuine iterations of real fruit (like drinking freshly squeezed versus concentrate). It also has a gentle effervescence — perfect for those who don’t like the aggressive fizz of seltzer water.

Alternative Alcohol Bases

Other recent entrants to the hard seltzer space stray from the norm by using different base alcohols. High Noon, from E. & J. Gallo, offers vodka-based hard seltzers, with a lineup that includes a range of fruit-flavored options similar to those of the category leaders. Each has 4.8 grams of carbohydrates per 12-ounce pour, giving this line of seltzers a concentrated, full-bodied profile. (Natural flavorings rather than fresh fruit provide the flavor in this instance.)

Colorado’s Lifted Libations also offers a small lineup of flavored, canned vodka sodas. Though this brand doesn’t market its drinks as hard seltzers, they fall well within the tried-and-true nutritional formula, with 5 percent ABV, 0 carbs, and just 96 calories per 12-ounce serving. Light on the palate, in both flavor and texture, these hard seltzers are perfect for those looking for a bonafide vodka soda, with just a hint of fruit.

In January, E. & J. Gallo introduced the first wine-based hard seltzer through its Barefoot brand. Arriving in slightly smaller cans (250 milliliters) than other brands, these fruity blends also pack a relative punch on the carb front, with a total 5 grams per serving (and 70 calories). Once again, this provides a beverage that feels weighty on the palate, with intense fruit flavors and a pleasantly sweet finish that’s boosted by a touch of sugar (2 grams).

Category-Crossing Options

From Texas, Brizzy Seltzer Cocktail poses the question: Is this a canned cocktail or a hard seltzer? With flavors that include Watermelon Mule and Mixed Berry Mojito, one might assume the former. But inspection of their ingredients and nutritional values (100 calories, 5 percent ABV, and 2 grams of carbohydrates per 12 ounces) suggests this lineup can definitely be considered a form of hard seltzer. Either way, each tastes as fruity and refreshing as any other seltzer on the market, but sticks to the flavor profile of the cocktails they aim to emulate. This combo offers a really fun alternative to the straightforward fruity options that dominate the market.